By BRENNA GRITEMAN
DELPHOS — Families looking to add a little whimsy to their usual Christmas photos or birthday parties might consider renting a reindeer and sleigh or an exotic-animal petting zoo from Jungle Island Zoo in Delphos.
But don’t worry: That fleet of camels, ring-tailed lemurs or kangaroos will come with a professional handler.
“We don’t rent an animal like you would rent a piece of equipment. It’s not like you rent a camel from Ace Hardware,” assures Ben Osting who, along with wife Kim, owns and operates the mobile petting zoo.
As Christmas nears, Osting says Jungle Island Zoo’s services come in high demand. The business rents reindeer for petting or photo ops, and can even arrange for Santa and some elves to tag along. The reindeer are sought-after additions to Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, nursing home parties and town festivals.
Though they seem relatively exotic here in northwest Ohio, Osting says reindeer are kind, gentle animals. At the farm they are fed a diet of grain and hay, but at public events Osting says the reindeer love to snack on carrots offered by their admirers.
The reindeer are regular visitors to Feasel’s Garden Center in Findlay, where owner Joyce Feasel says customers young and old are thrilled at the chance to pet and feed the Christmas ambassadors.
“It’s funny because adults come in and they don’t believe that’s a real reindeer standing there,” Feasel says.
The reindeer will be visiting Feasel’s the evenings of Dec. 8 and 15, and their viewing is free and open to the public.
The zoo also provides miniature donkeys, sheep, camels and zebu — thought to be the oldest domesticated breed of cattle in the world — for live nativity scenes. Handlers for these Bethlehem-inspired scenes come dressed as shepherds upon request.
While reindeer appearances are limited to Ohio, Osting says petting zoo animals regularly travel as far away as Chicago and Pittsburgh. No visitors are permitted at the farm in Delphos, where the menagerie is cared for by the couple’s family and close friends.
“I’ve been raising exotic animals for basically about 40 years,” Osting says, explaining that he grew up rearing animals on his family’s farm. He says Jungle Island Zoo started out with deer and other small native animals, and has since expanded to housing hundreds of animals representing dozens of different species from around the world. Osting says he’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite animal — “I like them all, I always have” — though the kangaroos, camels, reindeer, owls and ring-tailed lemurs tend to be fan favorites.
Outside of the holiday season, the zoo rents animals for events such as petting zoos and educational shows. Pony and camel rides are popular among kids, though Osting notes a typical event attracts as many adults or young couples as it does children.
“We appeal to kids of all ages,” Osting says.
County fair season, too, is a busy time. The zoo was a beloved attraction at the Hancock County Fair off and on for about 10 years, and has been a staple of the Allen County Fair for 16 years. Putnam and Van Wert’s county fairs are also visited regularly.
The zoo is licensed and insured at the state and federal level, Osting notes.
To schedule a visit or for more information, call Kim at 419-234-3672.